Higher learning institutions endure ahead of re-opening

Monday February 08 2021
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Students of Makerere University at the campus. Re-opening learning institutions has great opportunities and challenges alike. PHOTO / COURTESY.

By Deus Bugembe

Since March last year when tertiary institutions closed as a measure to curb the Covid-19 spread, each day that goes by leaves many students in the dark without knowing when normalcy will be reinstated. It is now 10 months and counting of students and lecturers’ frustration for different reasons, especially limitations that come with online classes.

Institutions like Kyambogo and Makerere had hoped to resume normal business last week but the move suffered a setback when National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) executive director, Prof Mary Okwakol, instructed institutions not to reopen for non-finalist classes until a decision of government on the matter is communicated.

A week later, Okwakol would notify vice chancellors and principals that the Minister of Education and Sports had opted to stick with online classes without physical meeting to play it safe with the virus still a threat.

The look of things suggests institutions will fully open in March after President Museveni confirmed while addressing the nation on various media platforms on Thursday evening. “Universities and tertiary institutions are to reopen in March in a staggered way,” he said.
The news will come as a relief for students who feel they have sat at home for ages .While Makerere university finalists are expected to return to physical class under Covid-19 standard operating procedures, the non-finalists will wait until next month depending on the outcome from a series of inter-ministerial meetings overseen by Education minister Janet Museveni.

Between now and March  presents tests for both finalists and non-finalists , the former return to a setting they last experienced 10 months ago while the latter have to deal with shortcomings of online classes a bit longer.  

Marjorie Gwokyalya, a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences of Makerere University has been part of online classes since they started but like her, many of her classmates found problems with the new measure. “Many of us were never ready. Those who reside in rural areas could not access the internet, we are a big class but you could see only seven to ten people in attendance on the Zoom applications,” she recalls.

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All that happened in her second year, she will return to normal classes in two weeks since she is now a finalist in third year but it does not feel like an escape. “I’m an evening student but when finalists’ classes resume, both day and evening will attend the same class yet we are probably the biggest class at the university,” she says.

Large classes may bring about a low understanding level among teachers and students since the teacher, and even students themselves, do not have enough quality time to get to know each other better or communicate well.

Besides, this may lead to disengagement and low cooperation levels as well as fewer students’ recognition. A pitiable teacher to student ratio also comes with lack of flexibility, poor class climate management, difficulty of setting and enforcing classroom behaviour. It is every teacher and student’s nightmare.

Being a finalist at any level of education comes with added responsibility. It is the final hurdle before progressing to the next level. For those in tertiary institutions, graduation is next in line which brings students face to face with what awaits them in the real world. It makes sense why the government has prioritized them over their continuing counterparts, they are that delicate and deserve all the attention.

Finalists will enjoy closer relationships with their lecturers, leaving room for personal access to questions and seek guidance. That will be possible for small classes unlike Gwokyalya’s Arts in social sciences finalists’ class. “With both evening and day students mixed for one of the biggest classes, it’s going to be impossible to access lecturers for extra explanations,” she says.

Away from the constraints of a crowded class, the finalists have the opportunity to socialise, something that was impossible with online classes. Meeting up with others is an opportunity to network and even make contacts that could be useful to your career.

It also creates opportunity for slow learners to pick from the brighter students. It’s proved that some students find it more comfortable learning from fellow students than teachers. “Now that we are going back to the normal setting, we can get discussion groups and learn from each other,” she adds.

In Kyambogo University, Grace Orishaba who is a second year student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education decided not return home in Kabale but stay around campus to keep tabs on what is happening. The system dictates she must stick to online classes for now but along with a few friends they meet once in a while for discussions, not all of them can foot internet expenses. On top of the costly internet, it has been unreliable, slow and not fully recovered from the five day shutdown during the presidential elections.

“The internet is unpredictable and not everyone can access it. We communicate, meet up once in a while and go through whatever transpired during the online class. It helps those who missed the online classes. We discuss ideas, solve problems and make comments to keep each other updated,” explains Orishaba.

Maurice Musamba is another continuing student who will start his second year Business Commerce with online classes just like he finished his first year. His online class experience was a forgetful one, he describes it as the most difficult time of his education span. Just as he was gearing up for the return of traditional class, news of waiting till March depending on a number of variables came through. He will have to go through the online classes once again for a bit longer. “Makerere University needs to help us with data online education.

During last time out, it was hard to figure out how the university website worked since it was my first time to use it. The pandemic did not allow us to test and get educated on how it operated,” Musamba had to do six course units last semester despite having covered only 30% in five of them. The Muk portal was not stable and had network issues yet it was his source of notes. The task is about to even get tougher with the internet being slow of late. Uganda has one of the highest data rates, the issue trickles down to the ordinary student like Musamba. “An hour’s lecture on zoom used to consume about 300mbs of data which is expensive to me,” he complains. To him it’s a feeling of dejavu but he has no option.

Makerere University vice chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe has noted data costs complain from many students in Musamba’s positions. He earlier in the week hinted at negotiating with telecom companies to forge a way of students accessing the internet for free and if it fails, the university might have to chip in.

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Kampala University public relations manager Julius Ssekatawa says universities find themselves in a state of “quagmire” because of the disorganisation this whole reshuffling of schedules brings. PHOTO/GABRIEL BUUOLE.

Kampala University public relations manager Julius Ssekatawa feels for all Institutions and students. According to him, they find themselves in a state of “quagmire” because of the disorganisation this whole reshuffling of schedules brings. “There are going to be many gaps as the whole sequence has been disrupted, “he says.  “You find continuing students complaining they don’t have access to laptops, smartphones and the internet itself. There is nothing to do for those until universities are opened to all,” he adds. Ssekatawa also thinks institutions have to deal with big budgets despite not having a full house, it is a narrative seconded by Uganda National Teachers’ Union member (UNATU) Filbert Baguma.

“Gradual reopening is a good option because it does not put a lot of pressure on the school. But, managing a school with one class attending. The school will still incur costs yet it is getting little from the students,” he explains.

Kyambogo University sent out a notice to its student reading “As one of the Higher Education Institutes, Kyambogo University will adhere to the President’s directive and wait for further guidance. The University will therefore not open for physical lectures as previously communicated,” The communication left second year Business administration student Lillian Nakitende almost in tears. 

“Let me even look for employment because at this rate we might never study,” she joked. She has already missed a year and her hopes of getting back on track have been shattered for now. Reopening of institutions is overdue. The government has managed to open other sectors like public transport and markets which are more dangerous while education remains uncertain of what lies ahead. 

The President’s address on reopening schools did not have a clear roadmap, adding to the already existing confusion. The notice instructing higher learning institutions to keep shut for an extra month or so does not help any stakeholders, let it be students (both finalists and continuing), universities and lecturers. 

Digital benefits

There are no geographical barriers. The best educational institutions in the world are within reach and can be accessed from anywhere.
Flexible timetables. Content is always available to access at any time.

This makes it easier to study several subjects simultaneously.
Content is updated. All materials are in digital format, which is easier to update.

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A lecturer of Uganda Christian University undergoing Open Distance e-Learning Competency Training in preparation for online classes that started on October 15, 2020. Universities face fresh challenges when they open for ‘normal classes’ next month. PHOTO/ COURTESY.

Challenges 
It requires organisation and willpower. This means that success is based on establishing suitable routines.

The teacher is less accessible. Students only have virtual access to their teachers, which restricts opportunities to ask questions.

There are fewer opportunities for socialising. Because there is no physical meeting point, students are unlikely to form personal relationships.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com 

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